SAVING THE MOUNTAIN CARIBOU

With heavily muscled bodies, skinny legs, and strong hooves that balloon to the size of dinner plates come winter, mountain caribou — the "mountain ecotype" of the woodland caribou — are well adapted for life in their snow-covered home. Yet nothing could have prepared these shy creatures for the considerable snowmobile traffic that now hurtles across the Selkirk Mountains of northern Washington and Idaho. Caribou eking out an existence here are some of the last of the great caribou herds that once roamed throughout the northern United States. Not only do snowmobiles scare the docile animals and change migration patterns, they also create compacted trails that give predators easy access to prime caribou habitat.

To give this habitat the federal protection caribou need, in January 2009 the Center and allies filed suit against the Bush administration over its more-than-six-year failure to designate critical habitat for the woodland caribou after a 2002 petition. In November 2011 the Service finally proposed to grant the caribou more than 376,562 acres. When the Service finalized critical habitat for the caribou in 2012, it slashed the protected area to just 30,010 acres — but after the Center and allies sued, in 2015 a federal court ordered the Service to reconsider that decision to reduce its critical habitat by 90 percent, greatly improving the caribou's outlook.

Besides battling for this animal under the Act, the Center has also made a priority of curbing snowmobile use in the caribou’s key feeding and calving areas, in 2005 joining five partner organizations in a lawsuit to protect the species and its habitat within the high-elevation forests near Priest Lake, Idaho. But despite research showing that snowmobile traffic harms caribou, the U.S. Forest Service continued to encourage increased snowmobile use in the area. After some back-and-forth with snowmobile users and the agency, our lawsuit resulted in a court decision that banned snowmobiles from 470 square miles of essential caribou habitat. We’ll continue our campaign for more protected caribou habitat and the conservation of old-growth forests so that the mountain caribou population can once again flourish.